Last week I went camping/hiking at the Panamint Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Here's a Google Map of the location. The dunes are centered in the map. The Natl. Park Service has an excellent map of death valley. The link is at the top of the right column.
About 4.5 miles east of Panamint Springs, a graded (somewhat) and unsigned road extends for about 6 miles north from highway 190. At the end, there's a flat area for use as a parking lot or campground. Backcountry camping rules apply there and you can camp along the road once you're 2 miles from 190. The road is passable by most cars, as long as you go slowly. Recent rain will cause more problems by deepening the many washouts across the road. If you zoom in on the Google Map link I provided, you can see this dirt road approaching from the lower right and ending to the south east of the dunes. My first photo shows the dunes as seen from the parking area.
The end of the road is surely not exciting. It's dry, hot, dirty, and absolutly devoid of anything to do. You need to bring your own shade and entertainment. I brought books. I waited until closer to sunset before hiking to the dunes. There was no wind. And something else ... it was totally silent. Eerily quiet. Deafeningly quiet. (suitable hyperbole) I was actually annoyed by the ringing in my ears. Probably some form of tinnitus.
Within 30 minutes of arrival I was treated to the first of many aerial shows as F-18s from China Lake came rushing up the valley toward the dunes and disappearing over the hills behind them. A couple times, it was 2 or 3 jets and they'd bank hard and turn around at the dunes to return south. I didn't get any photos of these because ... jets fly very fast. By the time I heard their engines, I'd look up and finally find the jet(s) to be well past me. One time, I had some odd premonition and I looked up to see a jet right in front of me. Flying past me, about a half mile away, and banked at about 80 degrees. So, basically I was looking at the underside of the F-18. Cool! By the time I grabbed my camera, I couldn't find the plane.
It's supposed to be about 3 miles from the parking area to the dunes.
It took me 35 min to reach nearest edge of the dunes' sand (where progress is slowed), and 1 hr 15 min to reach the opposite side of dunes (where I could have the setting sun to my back). I was surprised to find a lot of small-scale rippling on the dune surface. I didn't see this at Kelso dunes and only a little of it at the Ibex dunes.
My earlier failure to photograph the jets bothered me, and I was hiking with my camera in hand, ready to snap photos at the first sound of them. My effort was finally rewarded. I had already hiked around and atop the dunes and was getting bored. I stood on a somewhat flat section about half way up the largest dune. Again, some sort of ESP-like thing made me stare closely at the air to the south. Then I saw it. A lone F-18 was flying almost straight at me! I grabbed my camera and took a video as it flew overhead and over the hills. That was really cool. Blogger doesn't let me post videos, so I just posted one frame.
The mountains on both sides of the valley provide for long dusk and dawn periods. When it finally came up, the full moon illuminated the entire valley. neat. Unfortunately, it also prevented me from doing much star gazing. Sunrise didn't bring the photo experience I was hoping for. The sky was hazy. I packed up and left for some 4WD touring adventures in the area. If you've got a 4WD and want to use it, then Death Valley has some terrific places to go, ranging from the mild and scenic, to the high-pucker-factor scary trails that should have more warning signs. If you're interested, just let me know and I can supply loads of info.